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Leigh Sarty: Don't overplay the Xi-Putin bromance
The Russia-China alliance is a challenge to the West, but we shouldn't ignore the inevitable tensions in what is an increasingly unbalanced partnership.
By: Leigh Sarty
The Xi-Putin summit that concluded earlier this week caused quite a stir in Western capitals. With all eyes on Ukraine and possible implications for the war there, it’s not surprising that the international commentariat focused keenly on this latest installment of the Sino-Russian bromance.
For all the hype, the meeting generated more heat than light. The two sides pledged enduring partnership and signed a handful of agreements, but there was nothing that moved the goalposts on Ukraine. Just how far Xi Jinping is prepared to go to support his floundering ally remains open to as much speculation today as it did before he arrived in Moscow.
There is now no doubt that Putin, as the Financial Times (and others) have put it, is the “junior partner” in this relationship. The Russian president needs Xi much more than the Chinese leader needs him. Even as Xi cannily plays hard to get on enhancing military cooperation and a new pipeline for Russian gas exports; his rhetorical backing for the war and sway in the global South grant Putin essential diplomatic compensation for an anemic performance on the battlefield. Bilateral energy and technology ties have seen impressive gains as Moscow stick-handles Western sanctions. But Beijing drives a hard bargain. No fuzzy “band of authoritarian brothers” here: self-interest is the leitmotif of this relationship.
Yet implicit in the amount of ink that has been spilled on the subject is the sense that the Xi-Putin partnership counts for more. At a minimum, the tough-guy image of two dictators standing tall in opposition to the woke platitudes of a “liberal” West clearly holds appeal for the Tucker Carlson crowd at home. More soberingly, the apparent softness in support for Ukraine outside of Europe and North America has led some to conclude that the Sino-Russian axis is gaining the upper hand in its assault on the rules-based international order.
Such concerns should not be taken lightly. The charge that the West has found billions of dollars for Ukraine at a time when environmental, health, and other development needs in the South have gone wanting is a powerful asset in Beijing and Moscow’s push for global influence.
That said, the other side of the ledger must be kept clearly in view. Most commentary gives the impression that, while some differences are unavoidable, Sino-Russian partnership is all but immutable, evoking the dystopian presentism of Orwell’s 1984 (“Oceania is at war with East Asia; Oceania has always been at war with East Asia”). Only specialists recall the two sides’ armed clashes and the spectre of nuclear war that loomed between them in 1969. To be sure, half a century is a long time, and Russia today is literally a different country (it was still the Soviet Union back then). But just as it now seems unfathomable that Western and Russian policy makers once marched arm in arm in the pursuit of democratic and market reform, we forget at our peril Lord Palmerston’s famous remark that in international relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.
Much as the rhetoric out of Moscow this week has tried to convince the world otherwise, the interests of these two Eurasian giants do not seamlessly align, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the GDP of one partner (China) outstrips the other by a factor of nine. How long Putin can bear the resulting trade-offs, in terms of economics, prestige, and even sovereignty, is sure to test his friendship with Xi. And while Russia counts as little more than a spoiler in world affairs, China’s more powerful stake in the global system, which includes aspirations to a leadership role, is undoubtedly another source of friction.
The most persuasive argument against overblowing the Sino-Russian relationship comes from looking inside the two regimes. “Fragile authoritarians” is an appropriate epithet. Their fulminations against a perfidious West that allegedly seeks their overthrow by flaunting universal values such as democracy and human rights belies profound insecurities. Though many in the West are working hard to squander the soft power that has historically counted among our strengths, the enduring draw of our free societies and institutions is still cause for concern in the Kremlin and in the Chinese leadership compound in Zhongnanhai. Beijing spends more on internal security than on national defence. And we have yet to see a grassroots movement anywhere extolling the blessings of Putinism or Chinese Communist Party rule.
Prospects for Sino-Russian relations should neither be exaggerated nor underplayed. These are challenging times for the liberal democratic West, and Beijing and Moscow are a big part of that challenge. It is very useful for those countries who have issues with the existing Western-centric order to have in their corner two of the nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council P5. Russia and China, separately and in tandem, are key obstacles to the promotion of Western (including Canadian) interests and values in Europe, Asia, and around the globe. But we do ourselves no favours if we build up these two great but flawed authoritarian powers to be stronger or more closely aligned than they actually are.
Leigh Sarty is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. A retired diplomat, he served twice at Canada’s embassy in Moscow (1996-1999 and 2012-2016), and headed the Political Section at the embassy in Beijing, 2003-2007
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